People who work in book publishing always have a ridiculous amount of reading to get through. I once worked on what is pejoratively termed the ‘slush pile’ in the HarperCollins fiction department, where I would often be the first reader. As such, I would get to decide if the story was worth further consideration by those higher up the chain. There were so many submissions I don’t think I was ever on top of it.
So, when submitting your work, to give yourself a head start you need to make your book stand out. Why does the publisher HAVE to read it? (If you’re not sure, how can they be?) Why do you believe in what you are doing? What is it about this book that warrants the attention of the book-buying public? If you are able to provide an agent or publisher with this kind of information BEFORE they look at it, then – as long as they are enthusiastic, of course – you’re a step ahead.
How can you make a potential agent or publisher want to read a script? It’s a big question, and you should take your time and consider your approach. First and foremost you need to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like a marketeer. Can you condense your story down into one or two awesome sentences? If you can, you’ve developed a pitch, and depending on the policy of the publisher/agent in question, you can use this to get people interested – either on the phone or via cover letters/emails. I realise this can be scary, as you might get an immediate no. But the pitch will remain important right through to the book-buying stage, because in this frenetically paced market you never have very long to grab anyone’s attention. Don’t start pitching until you’re ready, as a publisher isn’t going to take very seriously the person who develops a new pitch every few weeks. They want to know you are focused and serious about what you are doing.
Do you know which market you’re aiming for? Have you thought about how your book will compete with others on the shelves? Why is it different? Why will readers pick up your travel book on Rome rather than the Lonely Planet’s? If you can give a publisher answers to these kinds of questions (without them having to ask), you will pique their interest. Otherwise, if such questions come up and you have no reply, you will look naïve.
Look at submissions policies very carefully and use them to your advantage. A script that comes in clean, tidy, correctly formatted according to guidelines, and with a concise covering letter will get more attention than the dog-eared, single-spaced tome with a rambling two-page explanation. Are there small embellishments you can use to draw people’s attention – artwork, for example? Be careful with using unusual fonts – only attempt it if they fit the kind of book you are working on, and remember they must still be easily readable. If you make the presentation too much of a challenge for a publisher, you are shooting yourself in the foot before you’ve begun.
Can you do anything else differently to get people’s attention? Your ploys need to be subtle, as at this stage a busy agent/publisher is doing you a favour by reading your work. When I worked in-house we would get writers ringing up demanding why we hadn’t yet got to their synopsis and outline, and that didn’t go down well. Never mind the writing, who wants to work on publishing a book with a stroppy, argumentative author. If you haven’t heard anything for a while, keep your inquiry courteous. You can remind them why they really should read your book, but be careful how far you push.
The submissions stage is one where books and dreams are made or broken. Success is a combination of skill, perseverance, patience and good fortune (and much more besides) – but the only way the final line is ever drawn is the moment you give up. Good luck!